About the time I finished reading Nefertiti by Michelle Moran, I came up with the idea of asking authors to fill in for me while I was on vacation. I instantly thought of Michelle Moran, a local author, and someone whose book I enjoyed immensely.
Please welcome Michelle Moran!
Please welcome Michelle Moran!
When Tracy Chevalier described the marketplace of Delft in her debut novel A Girl With a Pearl Earring, it almost seemed possible to put your foot down and feel the uneven cobblestones of the Dutch village she was writing about. And when Margaret George depicted the glittering city of Alexandria in her novel The Memoirs of Cleopatra, you could practically see the sunlight glinting off the “dancing blue waters” of the ancient harbor. But what is the secret to successful description, and is it necessary for an author to visit the places they write about in order to pen compelling and realistic historical fiction?
Before I began writing my second novel The Heretic Queen, I took a trip to Egypt to see for myself the magnificent temple of Abu Simbel. One of the many building projects undertaken during the reign of Ramesses the Great, the temple façade is carved with statues of both Ramesses II and his beloved Nefertari. Twice a year a thin beam of sunlight crosses the temple to illuminate three of four statues sitting in a darkened sanctuary. The only statue the sun doesn’t strike is that of Ptah, the god of darkness. I had timed my trip in order to see this bi-annual spectacle, and with hundreds of other visitors I watched as the sun struck the statues of Amun-Re, Ramesses II and Ra-Harakhty in turn. It was an almost mystical moment, made even more poignant by the fact that the narrator of the book I was preparing to write would have witnessed the same event more than two thousand years ago.
When I returned to America, I immediately began work on my second book, outlining the scene where Ramesses II takes Nefertari to his newly built temple in order to watch this special event. Did any of the wonderment I felt standing in Abu Simbel translate to the pages of my book? I hope so. But could I have written the same scene without ever having visited Egypt? The truth is that I probably could have. From research books to Wikipedia, a wealth of information exists on everything from fourteenth century weather to ancient Roman recipes. Although I trekked to Augustus’s villa on the Palatine for my third book, Cleopatra’s Daughter, if I’m truthful I would have to admit there was nothing I saw while I was there which couldn’t have been found in history books - or for that matter, on Google.
But how do other authors weigh in on the topic of whether it’s necessary for an author to have visited the places they’re writing about? Take a look:
When you are writing historical fiction, the geography of your setting isn't nearly as important as a sense of the era and the people. Time machines don't exist, so we have to rely on our imaginations to make a distant time come alive. Sometimes, your imagination can give you a clearer sense of accuracy than you could ever glean from research texts or travel. I find that I'm better able to write about a location when I'm not actually there, as if the clutter of geographical facts get in the way of really understanding a place.
Tess Gerritsen, NYT bestselling author of The Keepsake
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Fortunately for me, the answer is no. It's not only not necessary, it is, in a very real sense, impossible. I write about ancient Israel – but the Israel of King David's time is not the Israel of today. Forests are cut down, rivers change their course, the weather patterns alter, many varieties of plants and animals vanish over the centuries. In a sense, no author of historical fiction ever really visits the places she or he writes about; they visit the place as it exists now. Using research and imagination, we do our best to conjure up past times, past places, past lives for our readers. Without a time machine, we can never know how well we actually succeed. As the opening line of THE GO-BETWEEN by L.P. Hartley reminds us: "The past is foreign country: they do things differently there."
India Edghill (who loves travel, but who realized when she saw the huge red Coca-Cola sign just past the airport that the Athens of 1972 and the Athens in Mary Renault's THE KING MUST DIE were two entirely different places)
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Well, it's always desirable to go see the place(s) you're writing about. Whether it's really necessary or not depends on what resources are available. If you're writing about a place that's very well documented—like Scotland, say, which has a robust tourist industry and a very literate history—you can find out most of what you need to know: what the landscape looks, what specific structures and locations look like, where they are, what the vegetation and weather are like, and so on. If you want to write about Mauritius, it might be a little harder. Equipped with this basic information, you can then extrapolate from your own physical experiences; a Caledonian pine forest is not that different from one in Arizona. Essentially, the only thing you normally can't learn from print and pictorial research is what a place smells like. For that, you need to be there.
Diana Gabaldon, NYT bestselling author of the Outlander Series
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It was at Megara, a suburb of Carthage, in the gardens of Hamilcar… Legend has it that Flaubert, as soon as he had written the opening words to his historical novel Salammbô, threw down his pen in frustration and exclaimed “I have to go there!” What is sure is that he traveled to Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia, to become familiar with the setting of his new novel. Salammbô was published in 1862, after four years of painstaking historical and archeological research, much of it on site, and many rewrites.
I don’t mean to compare myself to the author of Madame Bovary and L’Education sentimentale, but I can imagine how he felt. It goes beyond mere physical knowledge: I need an emotional connection to the settings of my novels. These places become mine. Yes, I am very fortunate: the streets of Paris, the salons of Versailles, the mountains of Auvergne are mine. I possess them because they possess me. Otherwise I couldn’t take my readers there.
As historical novelists we live in the past no less than the present. What better way to measure the passage of time than to stand, in the 21st century, on the embankments of the Seine, feeling, smelling the dampness of the river, taking in the beauty of it, and reflecting on how the same place looked hundreds of years ago?
Catherine Delors is the author of Mistress of the Revolution and the upcoming For The King.
So what is the verdict? Clearly, it depends on the author. Just as approaches to writing differ, so do approaches to research. But with so many resources before us as writers – the internet, libraries, bookstores, and scholars who are only an email away – it doesn’t seem necessary to travel across the globe to infuse your writing with historical authenticity.
My advice to anyone who wants to write historical fiction? Delve in! Start in the bookstore and for every book that’s helpful to you, look up the bibliography and track down further books this way. And don’t be shy about contacting professors. While researching my novel Cleopatra’s Daughter, Professor Duane W. Roller, author of The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene, was enormously helpful. He answered questions I couldn’t find anywhere else. No one can be a specialist in everything, but while writing historical fiction, the author is expected to get it all right. Food, clothing, jewelry, flowers, herbs, building materials… Readers will want each of these elements to be historically accurate. So while visiting your location can be an added perk, there’s no way of going back in time without research and a great deal of imagination.
Michelle Moran is the bestselling author of Nefertiti. Her second novel, The Heretic Queen, will be released September 16.
You can learn more about the author and her books at her website and on her blog, History Buff.
*Photo of Michelle Moran in Athens standing with a statue of Octavian.